by Max Barry

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Geography and Environment

The official border of the Free Republic is the old treaty line of 60 degrees south. Inside this circle, there are several outlying islands, followed by the Free Republic's homeland: the Antarctic continent. For 34 million years, its true face was invisible to all, completely locked beneath miles of ice. Then, one thousand years ago, that began to change. Human technology began to release ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the earth's atmosphere. Within a few hundred years, the Antarctic Peninsula and its surroundings had melted, and the rest of the continent followed suit after a few hundred years more. As the ice drew back, it revealed the face of the Antarctic continent, sculpted by grinding ice over the eons into a singular kind of intricacy and beauty. Antarctic geography is fundamentally different from that of the rest of the world, due to the fact that the continent straddles the South Pole, rendering the traditional directions of north, south, east, and west to be useless. Antarcticans instead use their own unique set of cardinal directions, framing the continent with Nanji as its center: west, towards the Antarctic Peninsula; east, towards Vostok and beyond, weddell, towards the Maud Mountains, and ross, towards Adare and Concordia. The former two derive from the age-old names of West and East Antarctica, and the latter two derive from the Weddell and Ross Seas, all occupying their respective cardinal directions on the Antarctic map.

Geographically, the Antarctic continent is often differentiated into two halves. One is smaller, lower, and more fragmented. Its age-old colloquial name, West Antarctica, and its position on the Antarctic map, spawned one of Antarctica's unique cardinal directions. It encompasses the area between the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula on one end and the cities of Union and Raasa on the other. It was the first half of the continent to melt during the climate shift, uncovering a mosaic of intricate, twisting waterways and islands, some very small, others among the largest in the world. Most of these islands stay close to sea level, with one major exception: the twisting, broken spine of the Transantarctic Mountains, towering over the Western landscape, which very cold and snow-covered year-round - a climate shared by all of Antarctica's high mountain ranges. Due to West Antarctica's geography, the entire rest of the region has a humid and relatively mild climate due to its low elevation and closeness to the sea. Summer temperatures are usually between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter temperatures hover between 20 and 30 degrees.

Due to having melted first, West Antarctica is much more densely populated, containing over half of Antarctica's population despite covering only a third of the land area. The most famous landmark is Aasha, the oldest city in Antarctica. It is home to the Rupi Chen Memorial, dedicated to the "Mother of the Nation," a reconstruction of the building where the Antarctic Constitution was first concieved and written. Other landmarks include the city of Tivin, whose spectacular views of the Sentinel Range right next door are a landmark in itself; and the city of Palashima, home to the Mahindran Memorial, where Vinson Mahindran, one of the founders of the Free Republic, died giving his last speech. Some of Western Antarctica's natural landmarks include the Peninsula Range, the backbone of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the aforementioned Sentinel Range. The latter is home to Vinson Massif, a ring of nine peaks overlooking a chill mountain valley. The tallest is Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica; both the mountain and the massif were formally named after Mahindran during the early years of the Free Republic. Much like its distant cousin Fuji in Japan, Vinson Massif is scaled by many Antarcticans to see the sunrise from their continent's highest place, which they often describe as an intensely spiritual experience.

The other half of the continent is larger, higher, and drier. Its age-old colloquial name, East Antarctica, and its position on the Antarctic map, spawned one of Antarctica's unique cardinal directions. It makes up about two thirds of Antarctica's area, though it is only home to about half of the population. East Antarctica encompasses everything beyond Union and Raasa as detailed earlier, including the capital city of Nanji, which sits exactly atop the South Pole. This region is much more geographically and climatically diverse. The Eastern coasts have a humid and mild climate similar to that of West Antarctica, and they are home to the region's cities. The vast Eastern interior, meanwhile, has a drier climate with larger temperature swings. Deep inland, summer temperatures are usually between 60 and 75 degrees, but heat waves can push it up to 80 or 90. In winter, 0 degrees is the norm, and vicious cold waves can push it down to -20 or -30. Looming above the coasts are Antarctica's most spectacular mountain ranges, including the long, broken eastern half of the Transantarctic Mountains; the curved, towering Maud Mountains; and the massive Gamburtsev Mountains, a maze of chill mountain valleys and soaring ice-crowned peaks the size of a small country.

East Antarctica was the last half of the continent to melt; it took over four centuries for the ice to begin retreating across the high plains, and four more centuries for it to fully retreat into the mountains. As a result, although East Antarctica makes up two thirds of the continent's land area, it is home to less than half of the population. The central landmark is Nanji, the capital of Antarctica, which sits exactly atop the South Pole. It is home to the Grand Council, the Grand Tribunal, the rest of the Free Republic's government, and the Grytviken Memorial, dedicated to the victims of the fateful massacre. The most renowned natural landmark in Eastern Antarctica, meanwhile, is Lake Vostok, at the heart of East Antarctica's vast highland. Open to the air again after 14 million years, and found to have sheltered life under miles of Antarctic ice, this ancient lake is the center of the Anava Hindu religion and is considered the world's most sacred place by its adherents. The city of Vostok, nestled in a valley on the lake's western shore, is likewise the holiest city in Antarctica, home to a great number of temples and religious Antarcticans, and a destination of yatras from all across the continent.

Without a doubt, the most important residents of Antarctica are the king penguins. Small, flightless, tuxedoed, and one of the most adorable things a human will ever see, these little denizens look somewhat similar to emperor penguins; however, they are smaller and slimmer, they have a more upright posture, and their highlights are orange, instead of yellow and pink. Their voices sound like a peculiar mixture between those of a human child and a high-pitched vehicle engine. They congregate in colonies of up to a million penguins each, always next to the sea or an inland lake. Their diet consists mainly of lanternfish, squid, and krill, and the water also helps them cool off and survive the summer heat. Baby king penguins are covered in brown fluff, and take around 15 months to grow up. They live for about 30 years. When humans visit a colony, the king penguins are curious and investigative towards the humans, but they naturally wish to remain with their families and habitats, so they are never taken as pets. King penguins are only kept with humans in situations where they cannot survive on their own. Once they are able to leave, they are given a chance to do so, yet many king penguins choose to stay with their human anyway. If they do so, they are loved and cared for as a member of the human's household, for as long as the penguin wishes.

One of the most essential aspects of Antarctica is the austral forest, which stretches unbroken almost over the entirety of the Antarctic continent, pierced only by its highest mountain ranges. Even Antarctica's human cities are mostly austral forest. The woodland environment is composed of trees of the species Pinus sylvestris and an underbrush of short grass. The trees, now hundreds of years old, live many feet apart and their branches are very far above the ground, supporting fairly level boughs of leaves with ample space in between them. The sky is still a very present sight, and in summer, the forest is full of sunlight. Far from being claustrophobic, a walk through the austral forest is a distinctly open and welcoming experience. In the humid areas of both West Antarctica and the Eastern coasts, the forest is a deep and lush green, and the trees grow a little closer together. In the highland regions of East Antarctica, the trees grow further apart, and the colors of the forest are more muted, though still very much alive. The shape of the trees makes them particularly well suited for bonsai, a very popular art in Antarctica.

By virtue of its location hugging the South Pole, Antarctica is set apart from most of the world by its singular rhythm of day and night. In summer, most of Antarctica sees sunlight all day, and temperatures are always mildly warm. Conversely, in winter, most of Antarctica never sees the sun at all. The only light comes from the moon, the stars, and the southern lights. Temperatures are always cold, and the land is blanketed in three to five feet of snow, since no snowfall ever melts. In fall and spring, the sun might rise and set each day, or it might never set, or it might never rise. It depends on where the viewer is and what time of the year it is. At the South Pole, in fact, the sun only rises and sets once a year, on each equinox, and it takes about 39 hours to do so. Antarctic humans still need to fall asleep and wake up once a day regardless of what the sun is doing, and even without the sun's assistance, they find creative ways to do so. Even so, Antarcticans are still biologically affected by the cycle of the sun. They are often much more energetic and emotional in summer, and much calmer and mellower in winter, regardless of the time of day.